Jewish Dance in America

Modern and postmodern concepts of individualism and female expression have challenged traditional Judaism--while creating new dance traditions.

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Sokolow's Kaddish (1945) was a tense, halting solo commemorating those who had died in the Holocaust, in which she wore tefillin tightly wrapped around her arm. In Maslow's The Village I Knew (1950), a look at life in a Russian village inspired by the stories of Sholom Aleichem, early casts included the African-American dancers Donald McKayle and Ronne Aul.

Other Jewish dancers made pieces in a similar vein, seeing the spiritualism of Judaism as complementary with the deeply expressive impetus of modern dance. Hadassah's Shuvi Nafshi (1947), based on an excerpt from Psalm 116, "Return O My Soul," was a spiritual expression in which a woman wearing a prayer shawl used spins, palm-to-cheek, and upward reaching gestures in an emotional declaration to God.

Similarly, Chicago-born Pearl Lang often drew on the ecstatic element in Judaism as an inspiration for her choreography. Lang's many dances on Jewish themes include a version of the Dybbuk tale, The Possessed, which enjoyed multiple performances in New York in the 1970s, and I Never Saw Another Butterfly (1977) based on the writings of children of Theresienstadt.

More recently, works like Tamar Rogoff's compelling 1994 lvye Project set in the woods of Ivye, Belarus, on the site where 2,500 Jews were massacred during the Holocaust, and Danial Shapiro's What Dark/Falling Into Light (1996), inspired by a trip to the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington and the miraculous escape of his great-grandparents from Theresienstadt, continue to create emotionally compelling dances on Jewish themes.

In Recent Years

Since the 1980s, a more critical, angry, and sometimes comical spirit has also found its way into many American dance portrayals of Jewishness. For example, postmodern choreographers such as Liz Lerman, David Dorfman, and Rebecca Rossen tackle the stereotypes rampant in the dance and vaudeville traditions regarding Jews and performance.

In Lerman's The Good Jew? (1991), Lerman is put on trial to see if she is Jewish enough; at one point the performers daven (pray), while ironically singing a Christmas carol. Dorfman’s Dayeinu (1992) is riddled with distorted, crippled, uncomfortable movement and fragmented text that questions a key moment in the Passover Seder. Rossen’s Make Me a Jewish Dance (2000), in collaboration with Jewish choreographers Dan Froot and Victoria Marks, shifts from a soloist commenting on the audience's behavior as being Jewish or not, to a series of shrugging, hand-wringing, money-grubbing and other stereotypical "Jewish" gestures. In depicting the application of make-up in assumption of early 20th century "Jew-face," this piece questions whether the conventions that normally represent Jewishness can actually grasp the complexity of the Jewish experience.

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Naomi M. Jackson

Naomi Jackson is an Associate Professor of dance in the Department of Dance, Herberger College of the Arts, Arizona State University.